Her First Palestinian and Other Stories by Saeed Teebi: A Palestinian-Canadian Review

Her First Palestinian and Other Stories by Saeed Teebi, House of Anansi Press, 2022, 256 pages

Saeed Teebi’s masterful collection of nine short stories delves right into the many nuances of the Palestinian community in Canada. The prelude story “Her First Palestinian,” from which the book takes its title, was previously shortlisted for the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize.[1]  Already in 2022, the book was shortlisted for the Atwood Gibson Writer’s Trust Prize.[2]  Such prestigious and positive recognition is remarkable because Palestinian stories have not only been neglected in Canadian artistic spaces, they are often actively censored.[3] This general pattern of ignoring and suppressing has worked to ensure the invisibility of Palestinians, and contributes to their dehumanization. 

Cutting against this grain, Teebi’s storytelling brings to life the unique experiences of Palestinians, powerfully highlighting their humanity, personhood and agency, as well as their colonial dispossession. This book should find a place on the bookshelves of all Canadians precisely because it shows why Palestinians’ experiences cannot be reduced to the generic “Arab” or “Muslim” experience. Her First Palestinian offers a richer understanding of the world through Palestinian eyes and inspires a greater appreciation of the diverse people who now reside in Canada.

Given the dearth of Palestinian-Canadian stories, for me as a third-generation Palestinian-Canadian this book had a powerful and personal resonance. The memory of Palestine and love for my heritage and identity were passed down from my older relatives, particularly my grandfather.  My grandfather was born in Yafa (often anglicized as Jaffa) and fled in 1948 as a teenager during the Nakba, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homes to make way for the new state of Israel. My grandfather sought refuge in Syria and then eventually was able to migrate to Canada in the 1960s.

Teebi’s story “Ushanka”is written as an email exchange between Dasha, a Palestinian woman in Montréal, and Abu-Brahim, her grandfather. Abu-Brahim was born in Yafa and was expelled as a teenager during the Nakba, just like my grandfather was. Abu-Brahim’s family were merchants and cultivated oranges, as did my grandfather’s family. Just as I learned from my grandfather, it was through her seedo Abu-Brahim that Dasha learned to embrace and cherish her Palestinian heritage despite growing up thousands of miles away, prevented from returning to Palestine even for a visit. As I read through “Ushanka,”I had to pause multiple times to reflect on the familial exchange that mirrored the loving relationship that I have with my grandfather. I got teary as Abu-Brahim, despite having faced significant persecution, remained an active agent in his own life as he travelled to Russia and explored the unknown, even in his old age. Much like my own grandfather, Abu-Brahim never gave up hope in looking for answers and justice, the only difference being my own grandfather never tried to find them in Moscow. Needless to say, my personal favourite story in the collection is “Ushanka.”

This coincidence between my own life and Dasha’s is very striking. But Ushanka” was not the only story that echoed my own reality as a Palestinian. I experienced the same guilt as Abedin “Her First Palestinian” for living in Canada and thus effectively escaping the suffering of the Israeli occupation directly. I found myself feeling the same weary sense of frustration as Firdaos in “Enjoy Your Life, Capo,” as her online activism is censored and her Canadian classmates fail to understand her as a Palestinian.

There are many aspects of the book that I know would speak directly to my grandfather, who experienced what it meant to be a refugee. There are things that would resonate with my mother, who works in a public position as an academic. There are parts that I know would speak to Palestinians outside my family who have had entirely different experiences than ours. Teebi creates a certain universality in the emotions and concerns of the characters to which anyone, irrespective of ethnicity, can relate based on our shared humanity. But above all, he captures a variety of uniquely Palestinian experiences, creating a literary world that is unquestionably and gratifyingly Palestinian.

Both the CBC and Teebi himself have summarized Her First Palestinian and Other Stories as “stories about Palestinian immigrants and refugees.”[4] The book, however, is so much more than just “immigrant” stories. The protagonist in each of Teebi’s stories is different, and each story is layered with thematic symbols and narrative structures that reveal a larger multifaceted image of what it means to be Palestinian in Canada. Teebi goes far beyond just discussing the “immigrant” experiences of Palestinians, journeying into the very ethos of the Palestinian diaspora in Canada whether one is a newcomer or Canadian-born and raised. This is no easy task that Teebi has accomplished. Palestinian realities in Canada, like Palestinians as people, are not monolithic. Palestinian-Canadian identity and ways of thinking can be drastically different, dependent on factors such as generation or category of entry (for example, as a refugee versus as an international student).

Teebi brilliantly reflects this complexity within the Palestinian community in Canada through his cast of characters, exploring the geographic and generational bounds of diaspora. For example, Dasha in “Ushanka”is a second-generation Palestinian who grew up in Montréal, while Kasir in “At the Benefit”is a Gazan refugee now seemingly settled in Canada. Teebi also illuminates how the Palestinian diaspora carries the imprint of multiple geographies, stretching well beyond just Canada and Palestine. For example, in “Do Not Write About theKing,” a Mississauga-based Palestinian family is plagued with the border violence and surveillance politics of their former home “the Kingdom,” presumably meant to refer to an unnamed Gulf state.

Most Palestinians in the world today live outside of historic Palestine, with millions living in other Arab countries as non-citizens.[5] The fact is that most Palestinians do not come to Canada directly from Palestine but undergo multiple migrations and have multinational lived experiences. Indeed, it is truly refreshing that Teebi illustrates Palestinians in Canada not just as “immigrants,” but as people who are fully situated in Canada yet whose social and political concerns transcend borders. In effect, Her First Palestinian and Other Stories will resonate with most any diasporic Palestinian reader, just as it did with me, regardless of generational status or migration story.

What was most surprising for me in reading this book was that I had not anticipated some of the themes that ended up resonating with me. For example, the story “Her First Palestinian” laments how Palestinian identity has become defined by struggle, particularly against the Israeli occupation. Just like Abed, many diasporic Palestinians in the West accept a certain sense of shame, one that can even verge on guilt, for having escaped the brutality of the occupation and refugee camps that other Palestinians endure. Teebi puts into words a phenomenon I had been witness to my whole life but never been able to describe.

Another theme that ran through many stories was that of surveillance. In relation to the ongoing Israeli occupation, Palestinians are one of the most surveilled people in the world today. In “Do Not Write About the King” and “Enjoy Your Life, Capo,” Murad and Firdaos respectively confront having online speech violently monitored, whether by pro-Israel-sympathizing parents in Toronto or unknown officials from “the Kingdom.”

Surveillance appears as a theme even where it may not be apparent, especially through self-censorship. Nader, in “Cynthia,” increasingly censors his own imagination and thoughts, imagining how his daydreams and fantasies would be perceived by his womanizing Western roommates. Ultimately, Nader adopts a pattern of thinking imposed by the colonial male gaze. What Nader experiences is a form of self-deprecation and self-imposed panopticon that bears resemblance to Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and The Colonized but in a localized Toronto setting.[6] The concern over violent surveillance, colonial or otherwise, is deeply internalized by many Palestinians and many of us have learned to self-censor our very identity. Her First Palestinian and Other Stories shines a light on the threatening conditions that Palestinians in Canada encounter when asserting their voices, and on the resulting psychological gymnastics of censoring yourself around non-Palestinians.

Teebi fearlessly puts down in words parts of the diasporic experience that many are afraid to address but that need to be grappled with. This is not limited to the biases non-Palestinians may have against us. Teebi also tackles issues within the Palestinian diasporic community that do not always get acknowledged face-on. Salah and Firdaos in “Enjoy Your Life, Capo” epitomize what it means to live in the West as Palestinians and be complicit in the Israeli occupation. Of course, Salah’s complicity is very overt in the story. His direct benefit is as clear as day. Yet this question of complicity subtly plagues many Palestinian-Canadians.

It happens in the simple and mundane, for example, when we are buying something from a store but are unsure of whether it was made by a corporation profiting from illegal settlements in the West Bank. It happens when we go to study or work at a Canadian university or company whose donors and interest-holders benefit from the active oppression of Palestinians. We wonder whether we are doing enough for Palestinians living in refugee camps or under the occupation, or if we have distanced ourselves too much. Is there more that we can be doing? Even simply living in Canada, a settler-colonial state whose ongoing oppression of Indigenous peoples has parallels with the violent dispossession of Palestinians, raises a dilemma. Ultimately, Teebi advances an important question for the Palestinian community in Canada. How can we as Palestinians truly advance our collective rights when we live here?

This question is difficult, but Teebi also provides us with narrative insight on how to address this conundrum. One of the most powerful things I have always loved about the Palestinian-Canadian community is the bonds we have formed with other groups of people. Solidarity is central to my identity as a Palestinian. It is similar to how Abu-Brahim in “Ushanka” hopes to see the return home of those unjustly displaced by the October Revolution, and Ukrainians who lost their homes via Russian aggression. Or how Firdaos in “Enjoy Your Life, Capo” immerses herself in Black Lives Matter protests. We see our struggles in those of other people. Solidarity is where we can see justice, for others and for ourselves.

The principal concern, just as for Firdaos, is when non-Palestinians fail to see Palestinian people on our own terms and as human beings. When we have become so dehumanized and invisible, the reciprocity needed for effective solidarity networks becomes strained. This is why we need more Palestinians’ stories.

We should take Her First Palestinian and Other Stories as a call to action to hear more Palestinian voices in Canada. We need stories told by Palestinian women and gender minorities in Canada. We need stories told by both older and younger Palestinians in Canada. We need stories from Palestinians across different regions of Canada. We need stories from working Palestinians in Canada. We need our stories to remind ourselves and non-Palestinian Canadians that Palestinians are not a faraway people, with problems far removed from Canada. We are here. Our lives, accomplishments, contributions and even romances are here in Canada.  Our struggles are not far away. Our struggles are here.

[1] CBC Books “Her First Palestinian by Saeed Teebi” CBC (September 13, 2022)  

[2] CBC Books “Her First Palestinian by Saeed Teebi” CBC (September 13, 2022)

[3] See my article “Palestinian Voices in Theatre: Where Are They?” in Montréal Serai (July 1, 2021)

[4] CBC Books “Her First Palestinian by Saeed Teebi” CBC (September 13 2022)

[5] Ola Awad “Brief Report on the Population of Palestine at the End of 2021,” Arab Centre Washington DC (January 3, 2022)

[6] Memmi, Albert. (1965) The Colonizer and The Colonized. Translated by Howard Greenfeld. London, United Kingdom: The Orion Press Inc.